Page last updated at 23:07 GMT, Thursday, 21 May 2009 00:07 UK

Forged art legacy of Vietnam war

By Ha Mi
BBC Vietnamese Service

 Playing the O An Quan by  Nguyen Phan Chanh
Several museums say they have the original of Playing the O An Quan

How many of the paintings displayed at the Vietnamese National Museum of Fine Arts in Hanoi are originals and how many are copies?

That question has been a topic of hot discussion in Vietnam for quite some time.

It is well known among Vietnamese artists that the museum has been hanging works of art that are in fact copies of very famous Vietnamese paintings as some of the originals were either sold or lost.

The leading art historian and Vietnamese painting expert, Nora Taylor, from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, believes that about half of the paintings displayed at the museum are in fact copies.

According to Nguyen Do Bao, the former chairman of the Hanoi Fine Arts Association, the practice began with the best of intentions.

"The practice started during the war (between North and South Vietnam) in the 1960s. Copies were displayed at the museum while the originals were taken away to avoid being damaged during bombing raids," he explained.

At the time it seemed a great idea, but the problem was that nobody seemed to be in control.

Not all of the original paintings were returned to the museum after the war.

Vietnamese National Museum of Fine Arts
The museum has been urged to sort the forgeries from the originals

Now no-one is certain what has happened to the originals, but it is thought that some were sold by officials and are now in private hands or in galleries around the world.

Artists themselves were asked by the museum to copy their own paintings, and now no-one knows for sure which are original and which are copies.

To make the matter worse, the demand for Vietnamese art means that "young painters who have not made names for themselves, and even undergraduates who need money, make copies to sell", according to Nguyen Do Bao.

Going downhill

One very famous example of a copied painting on display at the museum was "Playing the O An Quan" by Nguyen Phan Chanh.

According to Nora Taylor, "the purported originals of 'Playing the O An Quan' are now in galleries in both Singapore and Japan".

One of the most copied painters is Bui Xuan Phai, who is best known for his paintings of the streets in Hanoi's old quarter.

His son, Bui Thanh Phuong, was upset to hear that one of the faked paintings described as Phai's work was sold for $120,000 (£76,000) at an international auction.

"I would be very glad if the painting was done by him. No paintings by Bui Xuan Phai have reached that price in Vietnam," says Phuong.

"I feel very upset about it, because any painter who knows about Phai's style can see at a glance that it is not his, it is a fake. The painting technique is so poor."

The fake is in lacquer which according to Phai's son was "very unfamiliar" to his father, whose original work can be seen in the National Museum, painted in oil.

Analysts say the practice of copying original works has damaged the reputation of Vietnam's art in the international market.

"People are complaining that the Vietnamese art market, which once used to be so hot, is now going downhill badly," says Nguyen Do Bao.

The biggest loss, according to Nora Taylor, is that prestigious museums around the world do not want to borrow works from the Vietnamese National Museum of Fine Arts.

Now there is growing pressure from the Vietnamese art community for the museum to sort out the genuine works from the copies.

The Vietnamese Culture Ministry has said it would like to set up a panel to clear up the confusion.

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